Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a monthly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre. This time - a look at definiting Roguelikes through 'The Berlin Interpretation'.]

Last time when covering Dungeon Hack, I noted that it doesn’t quite fit up to all of the most common definition of a roguelike. While it has random dungeons, hack-and-slash gameplay, and even items that must be identified, it is a first-person game.

And not even an Ultima Underworld kind of first-personness, but the same kind of discrete, right-angled rotation, corridor-centered perspective and step-based movement used in the Wizardry games, which were many years old by that point. And it was a real-time game, too!

For me, the game is obviously rougelike enough to be covered here, since we’re more concerned with what it is that makes roguelikes fun to play than adherance to a laundry list of similarities. But for those who are interested in such classification, we have the Berlin Interpretation.

Arrived at last year at the International Roguelike Development Conference, starting from a document over at Temple of the Roguelike, the Berlin Interpretation is a set of feature descriptions that fairly well encapsulates what a lot of people consider when they think of roguelikes. It covers both graphical and gameplay elements, and has the added advantage of not being posed as a mere checklist. They recognize that some games that are probably roguelike do not meet the exact description presented by the list, and so it is divided into High and Low value factors.

We’re going to take the game through several unusual cases we’ve covered in the past: ToeJam & Earl, Shiren the Wanderer (SNES version) and Dungeon Hack. We’ll also compare Nethack, Dungeon Crawl and Diablo to the list as controls. Let’s have a look!

The original text of the Berlin Interpretation can be found at RogueBasin.

To fold together how roguelike each of these games is, we rate them on a scale from 1 to 5. At the end we add the scores together can compare them to each other. Please note that this system is essentially arbitrary and probably counter to the intended use of the system. I’m using it just to give us a value to compare. This methodology probably wouldn’t stand close observation. For example, I myself have a problem with ASCII graphics being given any kind of priority. So there you go.

High value factors

Random environment generation
The game world is randomly generated in a way that increases replayability. Appearance and placement of items is random. Appearance of monsters is fixed, their placement is random. Fixed content (plots or puzzles or vaults) removes randomness.

Dungeon Hack: 5, levels are surprisingly good, though a little same-ish
TJ&E: 4, levels are fairly complicated but more same-ish until later on
Shiren: 4, levels have more pizazz but some levels are actually static, or drawn from a pool of possibilities
Nethack: 4, its level generator is aging a bit. The “fixed content” thing works against Nethack, which has lots of that.
Dungeon Crawl: 5, the best generator of those presented here
Diablo: 3, good generator visually, but less varied than the others due to a comparative lack of gameplay-relevant dungeon features

You are not expected to win the game with your first character. You start over from the first level when you die. (It is possible to save games but the savefile is deleted upon loading.) The random environment makes this enjoyable rather than punishing.

Dungeon Hack: 2, offers permadeath as a custom option, but unless it’s on for everything it doesn’t make much difference
TJ&E: 4, has a system of lives, but the game is hard enough that many are lost at higher levels and there are no continues, so it works out the same
Shiren: 4, the between-trip continuity options work slightly against it
Nethack: 5, good ol’ permadeath. Note that Nethack contains Discover Mode, which lets players revive after death endlessly, but a Discover win doesn't count as a win to either the community or the high score list.
Dungeon Crawl: 5
Diablo: 2, Diablo 2 introduced permadeath in the form of Hardcore Mode

Each command corresponds to a single action/movement. The game is not sensitive to time, you can take your time to choose your action.

Dungeon Hack: 2, game is a mix of turn-based and real time. Real time wins, generally.
TJ&E: 1, not turn-based at all
Shiren: 5
Nethack: 5
Dungeon Crawl: 5
Diablo: 1

The world is represented by a uniform grid of tiles. Monsters (and the player) take up one tile, regardless of size.

Dungeon Hack: 4, at first the game doesn’t look it, but really it’s the same as most roguelikes, just first person instead of overhead view
TJ&E: 1
Shiren: 5
Nethack: 5
Dungeon Crawl: 5
Diablo: 1

Movement, battle and other actions take place in the same mode. Every action should be available at any point of the game. Violations to this are ADOM's overworld or Angand's and Crawl's shops.

Dungeon Hack: 5
TJ&E: 4, due to mail order
Shiren: 5
Nethack: 5
Dungeon Crawl: 4, due to shops
Diablo: 4, due to shops

(It seems a unfair to punish games for not including a signature feature of Hack, but it's in the description.)

The game has enough complexity to allow several solutions to common goals. This is obtained by providing enough item/monster and item/item interactions and is strongly connected to having just one mode.

Dungeon Hack: 2, each class typically has only one solution to a given kind of problem, but often different classes have their own solution. This is against the spirit of the document though.
TJ&E: 4, a lesser variety of solution than other games, but still offers many ways through different situations depending on presents on-hand
Shiren: 5
Nethack 5, and more, it is Nethack’s great strength
Dungeon Crawl: 4, solutions are less universal than in other games
Diablo: 1, most solutions come down to killing things with either swords or spells

Resource management
You have to manage your limited resources (e.g. food, healing potions) and find uses for the resources you receive.

Dungeon Hack: 3, most resources have only one use, but it does make the player rely on them
TJ&E: 4
Shiren: 5
Nethack: 4, Nethack doesn’t hold the player’s feet to the fire as much as predecessors Hack and Rogue
Dungeon Crawl: 5
Diablo: 1, its shops break scarcity

Even though there can be much more to the game, killing lots of monsters is a very important part of a roguelike. The game is player-vs-world: there are no monster/monster relations (like enmities, or diplomacy).

All except TJ&E: 5
TJ&E: 1, the players can only fight monsters using certain presents, and further receive no experience for it

Exploration and discovery
The game requires careful exploration of the dungeon levels and discovery of the usage of unidentified items. This has to be done anew every time the player starts a new game.

Dungeon Hack: 5, surprisingly, the dungeon has a lot of character, there are several important features generated, and the items are much like in Rogue
TJ&E: 4, held back a little from presents being the only kind of item
Shiren: 5
Nethack: 5
Dungeon Crawl: 5
Diablo: 2, item ID is faked. Dungeons have some important random features scattered about though.

crawljelly.gifLow value factors

Single player character
The player controls a single character. The game is player-centric, the world is viewed through that one character and that character's death is the end of the game.

Dungeon Hack: 5
TJ&E: 5 in single-player, 4 in two-player mode, the game’s two-player mode is a big part of its appeal actually, but it does fall outside the realm of the document. Even in two-player mode the game is still very roguelike-ish, just with a second player played by a second person. Still, many games are played in one-player mode.
Shiren: 5
Nethack: 5
Dungeon Crawl: 5
Diablo: 5 in single-player, 2 outside of it. It beefs up of monsters in multiplayer games necessitating teamwork, which might be good game design but isn’t roguelike so much. Diablo is so strongly focused on multiplayer that I’m rating it as 3 in the aggregate scores.

Monsters are similar to players
Rules that apply to the player apply to monsters as well. They have inventories, equipment, use items, cast spells etc.

Dungeon Hack: 2, no inventories, limited abilities
TJ&E: 1, enemies are very limited compared to players
Shiren: 3, monsters have no inventory, but move much like player
Nethack: 5, intelligent monsters are extremely flexible
Dungeon Crawl: 4, monsters use weapons and armor but only a small number of magic items
Diablo: 1, monsters are simply enemies

Tactical challenge
You have to learn about the tactics before you can make any significant progress. This process repeats itself, i.e. early game knowledge is not enough to beat the late game. (Due to random environments and permanent death, roguelikes are challenging to new players.) The game's focus is on providing tactical challenges (as opposed to strategically working on the big picture, or solving puzzles).

Dungeon Hack: 1, tactically light
TJ&E: 3, getting around opponents through evasion is challenging and fun, and evading danger is a big aspect of any good roguelike. There is little actual combat though.
Shiren: 5, arguably the game’s strongest feature, there are many dangerous situations that can only be escaped through clever use of the tools at hand
Nethack: 4, after the mid-game, many characters can bulldoze through most situations
Dungeon Crawl: 5, tactical combat is a focus of the game
Diablo: 3, focuses on the bad parts of hack-and-slash but still pretty good

ASCII display
The traditional display for roguelikes is to represent the tiled world by ASCII characters.
(I don’t place a lot of stock in this one myself.)

Dungeon Hack: 1
TJ&E: 1
Shiren: 1
Nethack: 5, has an ASCII mode available
Dungeon Crawl: 5
Diablo: 1

Roguelikes contain dungeons, such as levels composed of rooms and corridors.

Dungeon Hack: 5, actually has excellent dungeons, its level builder is among the best
TJ&E: 1, its weird land-and-space levels may be dungeon like, but they aren’t dungeons
Shiren: 3, many of its early areas are outdoors. If that sounds petty, well, it is, but it’s a rather petty criteria.
Nethack: 5
Dungeon Crawl: 5
Diablo: 5, Diablo 2 introduced non-dungeon play environments

The numbers used to describe the character (hit points, attributes etc.) are deliberately shown.

Dungeon Hack: 5, HP bar can be switched to numbers and the PC, as a D&D 2E character, flaunts its statistics
TJ&E: 1, only score is visible numerically
Shiren: 5
Nethack: 5
Dungeon Crawl: 5
Diablo: 5, it places a strong emphasis on increasing your stats however you can, usually through equipment

Totals, counting low-value factors for half:

Nethack & Dungeon Crawl (tie): 57.5
Shiren Super Famicom: 54
Dungeon Hack: 42.5
TJ&E: 33
Diablo: 29

The maximum score is 60, the minimum is 12. These scores seem to me to be fairly consistent with the rogue-likeness of each of these games. Most games that, subjectively, have nothing to do with roguelikes would probably score in the low 20s at most, with lots of them coming in at 12. Rogue itself would probably get a 56 or 57, the only thing it lacking being monster similarity to the player (monsters there don’t have inventories).

It seems to objectively be a good measure, but I wonder. Is it possible to devise a game that seems roguelike subjectively, but purposely fails most of the tests of the Berlin Interpretation? Spelunky might be a good game to hold up against it as an edge case. We may come back to this later....

EDIT: Fixed an unfortunately typo.